A tale of four chimneys
Peter Watts explores the many iterations of Battersea Power Station, as seen through its iconic smokestacks
For decades, Battersea Power Station has squatted by the railway line like a riverside fortress, its four chimneys acting as a modern counterpoint to the turrets of the Tower of London downriver. But travel past the hulking giant today, and you may be in for a surprise.
The power station currently has one solitary chimney, the other three having been recently demolished. It looks vulnerable, like Samson without his hair, but don’t worry, the chimneys will be replaced as part of a £9 billion redevelopment scheme that will see the first residents move into apartments overlooking the power station in January.
“Without the chimneys, it’s nothing,” says Rob Tincknell, the chief executive of the Battersea Power Station Development Company, who spends much of his time staving off questions about the development’s progress. “I will be a lot happier when I see those chimneys going up.”
Tincknell, whose great-grandfather ran the Leighton Buzzard cement company that made the chimneys in the first place, understands the appeal of the most famous stacks in London. But this isn’t the first time the building has been short of chimneys.
The power station opened with two funnels in 1933 with a third arriving in 1941. The Second World War delayed construction for another 14 years before the fourth chimney was completed in 1955. Only then, more than 20 years after the power station began producing electricity, did Battersea take on its familiar appearance. Now, that process is happening in reverse. The chimneys have been rotting for years, and the worst one, in the south-west corner, was demolished and rebuilt in 2015.
“It literally crumbled,” says Tincknell. “The condition was much worse than originally thought. We are now rebuilding them exactly the same as when they were originally made.”
Keith Garner, an architect and member of the campaigning Battersea Power Station Community Group, disputes the need to demolish and rebuild the chimneys. He believes they should be preserved and refurbished in situ.
“The chimneys have helical reinforcing inside and classical fluting to the exterior, so inside it looks like a fishnet stocking and that is apparently unique,” he says. “They are interesting for that reason, as well being part of the totality, the authenticity of the building.”
Their importance is also acknowledged by Sir Edward Lister, former Deputy Mayor of London and Conservative leader of Wandsworth Council, which covers the power station. “The developers recognise that some of the interest that has been generated is dependent upon this massive power station and the chimneys,” he says. “It’s a brand, a great international landmark that people know from all over the world. The success of the commercial space is entirely dependent on people saying, ‘I am going to the power station’, so the chimneys have to go back up.”
Although the eye-catching chimneys give Battersea its majesty, they were not built for aesthetic appeal. The location, size and number were determined by their role in the “gas-washing” process that ensured a coal-burning power station would not send plumes of sulphur over London.
The original plans had 16 short steel chimneys aligned in two rows and braced by steel cables. However, as fears grew about pollution – one politician wrote in 1929 that the power station would “kill every green thing within two miles of Battersea, rot all the buildings and bleach all the babies” – the chimneys grew progressively fewer and higher until only four remained.
Each chimney is about 352ft tall (figures vary), with an internal diameter of 28ft narrowing to 22ft at the top, still twice as big as a Central Line tunnel. Once the first chimneys were completed, Battersea became London’s tallest structure, until the erection of the television mast at Crystal Palace in the Fifties. From 1955 the four chimneys gave Battersea an unmistakable silhouette, visible across the city, that featured in TV programmes, films and on album covers, such as Pink Floyd’s Animals, which famously featured an inflatable pig named Algy. For many, the chimneys were Battersea Power Station.
This was recognised in 1983 when the power station was decommissioned, leaving people pondering what to do with the commanding but useless listed building. Maverick architect Cedric Price made a radical proposal. Price, surely the only architect to be a member of the National Institute of
Star status: Pink Floyd’s pig stunt for its Animals album cover, above, and frontman David Gilmour, below